Published: September 3, 2021

The following is a Statement from SEIU 503 Executive Director Melissa Unger and SEIU 503 President Mike Powers on Labor Day Weekend: 

Over the past year SEIU 503 members working in public services, homecare, nursing homes, universities and hundreds of other jobs in Oregon have carried a unified message: I Am Essential. This Labor Day, we are reflecting on what it means to be essential. 

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, essential workers put themselves at risk to keep Oregon safe, healthy and comfortable. In the early days of the pandemic we were hailed as “heroes,” but the lip service faded away quickly. In its place we were left with a reality that most essential workers are all too familiar with: long hours, low pay, risk of injury, short staffing and the ever present feeling of disrespect. 

The truth is most essential workers are paid at or near minimum wage. They are more likely to be women, people of color and immigrants. Essential workers often have two or three jobs, and they still struggle to make ends meet. There is no voice, no advocate for essential workers. That is except for the workers themselves. 

The 72,000 workers in our union do have a voice on the job. In 2021, SEIU 503 members fought to raise wages, manage the ongoing threat of COVID-19, and improve the quality of public services and care that Oregoinans rely on. Together we fought to lift essential workers out of poverty with campaigns like the Essential Worker Pay proposal, and we negotiated with the nursing home industry to raise base pay rates by as much as 30%, helping to combat the staffing crisis that put vulnerable seniors at risk. We negotiated agreements around COVID-19 testing, PPE and paid time off to ensure that state services could function as the pandemic continued into 2021. We fought alongside essential workers nationwide to get a $400 billion investment in long-term care into the federal infrastructure legislation so that working families could care for their loved ones and 2 million homecare workers could be lifted out of poverty. 

But what about the tens of thousands of essential workers in Oregon, and millions of essential workers around the country, who don’t have the benefit of a union? 

In an era of increasing income inequality, when the concentration of elite power is at an all time high, the role of the labor movement has never been more important. America needs good union jobs. It also needs a powerful advocate for working people to serve as a counter weight to corporate power. America needs unions. 

America also needs its essential workers. Many of the jobs that are most important in a time of crisis are the jobs that are the lowest paid and least respected. This needs to change. One thing we know from our history is that advancement for working people only comes when working people fight for themselves. So to make this change possible, we must ensure that all essential workers have the right to join a union.